HELP! Private lessons vs. School Orchestra

Sarah Coley said: Nov 19, 2009
Sarah Coley
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Viola
34 posts

Dear Teachers,

I am in need of some advice (or perhaps studies that would support one or the other). Within the music community that I teach, I have been running into some issues with potential students opting to learn their instrument via public school orchestra first, rather than through private lessons. In my estimation of things, it makes much more sense for a young, hopeful, interested violin student to begin his or her musical study through private lessons (where they can receive more specialized, one-on-one instruction) than in the medium of a chaotic orchestra environment.

I do not mean to imply that I am against students enrolling in orchestra, but I think that they tend to have a better experience in the orchestral environment if their musical foundation has been laid through private lessons first. Students who have taken privately tend to be better sight-readers and are strong players, so they can help to keep the orchestra together, as well as bolster the confidence of other students. Does anyone have any thoughts on this issue?

Also, I think I would be less concerned if the public schools were employing the Suzuki in the Schools curriculum rather than the normal run-of-the mill traditional ways. The public school orchestra program in my area is not exactly conducive to producing great musicians. Over the years I have had several students who started in orchestra first, and they tend to be lacking in many aspects with poor posture, technique, intonation, etc. (which would be expected), but I know that it is extremely frustrating to them when we have to go back through the “basics”, because they think that they have already learned it. (Granted, I realize, that this is also dependent on the student and whether or not they recognize the value of refining these things, and are committed to sticking with it for the long haul. And also that orchestra techers tend to be very overworked, and do not have the time to spend working with each student individually.)

Deanna said: Nov 20, 2009
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
90 posts

I agree that private lessons generally would provide more individual attention to posture and technique.
I can also see the attraction of a school orchestra simply because it’s cheaper. A parent might think that if a child learns the instrument either way why pay for private lessons? It would also be a better fit for parents who don’t want to be involved in practising or taking notes at a lesson.
Also in my area the orchestras allow kids to start at age 8. With Suzuki we often start much younger so I haven’t really noticed that any of my potential students have chosen to go the orchestra route rather than private lessons.

I do sympathize with you and your students having to do “repair work”. Almost half my studio is made up of students that transferred to me at some point from other teachers. Some play beautifully and others don’t. It is really hard to find a balance between moving forward and rebuilding the foundation.

Sarah Coley said: Nov 20, 2009
Sarah Coley
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Viola
34 posts

The last parent that I spoke with (who falls into this classification) said that she wanted to start him in orchestra first, and then if he really liked the instrument, they would put him in lessons. I wanted to scream actually when she told me that. If the interest is there, I can see it easily disintegrating in the orchestra situation.

I have another student who started orchestra this year as well—she takes piano from me. The student actually has commented several times on how frustrated she is with orchestra. She feels like she does not get the attention she needs to excel (astounding for a 10-year-old to say), and her orchestra instructor neglected to tune her instrument for 3 weeks. I am not sure what the story was there, but my student ended up bringing the instrument to her lesson for me to tune, and it was actually very out of tune. This kind of thing reminds of the adage they talk so frequently about; something like striving for excellence, or laying a good foundation from the beginning.

Deanna said: Nov 20, 2009
 
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
90 posts

I think there are some parents who just see music lessons as another extra curricular activity. And just like they might sign up for a season of soccer they think they can try out music lessons in the same way to see if the child likes it or not. It’s just something for the kids to do outside of school that will hopefully have some sort of positive effect on them. Not necessarily something they have to work at.

I find families like this rarely do well with music lessons and usually quit within a year. As soon as something is too challenging they give up.

If those are the kinds of families you’re missing out on—I don’t think you’re missing much. It does take a lot of commitment on the parent’s part to be in a Suzuki program.

Have you tried having a mini-concert/parent meeting around the same time (or just before) the orchestra does sign-ups? Maybe do some advertising in your community. Even just ask if you can put up posters at local preschools, the library, schools, churches. Have a meeting for prospective parents and explain about the method what you offer, and have some demonstrations from your current students—a mini concert.

Also just getting yourself out in the community really helps too. Perform as much as you can. Play for charity events. Make sure the staff at the local music stores know you. Word of mouth and exposure are the best advertising for getting new students.

said: Nov 21, 2009
 89 posts

I completely agree with you that private lessons would be ideal. Have you considered that many people, especially these days, can’t afford lessons and are enrolling their child in orchestra as the next-best-thing?

Karra said: Nov 21, 2009
 Cello
51 posts

I work in a music school where there is a scholarship program for underprivileged children, but they have to audition first to get in. This means that I get a lot of students who have been in school orchestras for a year or two before starting lessons. What I find generally is this: the first few months are very difficult because there is always a lot of breaking down and re-building of technique to do. However, those that make it through those first few months (most do- I get an exception every now and then) tend to do extremely well afterward, because while they may not have learned great technique in orchestra, they did learn valuable things about musicianship.

Over the years I have had several students who started in orchestra first, and they tend to be lacking in many aspects with poor posture, technique, intonation, etc. (which would be expected), but I know that it is extremely frustrating to them when we have to go back through the “basics”, because they think that they have already learned it.

One of the most important things I do when such a student enters my studio is have a conversation with the parents without the student present. I let them know straight away that there will most likely be a few months of working on the fundamentals (bow grip, etc.) and that their child is going to need help with practice and perhaps some emotional support as well. I also need to make sure they will back me up on the idea that their child needs to work on these things. While it makes sense that parents would not want to undermine the teacher they have hired to teach their children, they may do so without meaning to. For example:
Child: But Mom, this bow grip hurts! Why does Ms. _______ say I have to put my thumb here? Mr. _______ said my bow grip was fine.
Mom: Oh sweetheart, you know how picky Ms. ________ is.

I do not mean to imply that I am against students enrolling in orchestra, but I think that they tend to have a better experience in the orchestral environment if their musical foundation has been laid through private lessons first.

Yes. I completely agree. However, non musician parents often do not understand this concept. I once gave a lesson to a prospective transfer student and within 5 minutes of meeting his mother heard her say, “My son had to take 2 years of lessons before he could get into School of the Arts. It’s a public school! Kids should be able to get in without needing private lessons. Why can’t they teach them well enough in middle school orchestra?” After hearing that, I’m sure many of you can imagine my response… I was speechless.

“It may very well be music that will one day save the world”— Pablo Casals

Heather said: Dec 16, 2009
 
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Violin
3 posts

In our area, we have a very strong Arts Magnet program in the public schools as well as a good community youth orchestra. In order to be considered for either program every student must not only audition, but have a private teacher as well. The youth orchestra even has a list of available teachers in the area that they provide to the students in case any do not have a private teacher.

I realize this is not the case in every area, but I think it should be. I currently have a student in the Arts Magnet program and when we have weeks where she neglects her practice I gently point out that violin lessons are not just extra-curricular anymore. They are part of her education just like English or Math.

So in answer to the initial post in this thread….there is enough evidence that students will be more successful in learning their instrument if they have private instruction as well as public orchestra experience, whether it be school or community, that it is required in the Metropolitan Area in which i reside.

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